Friday, April 04, 2014

A Good Kind Of Retirement

Let's say goodbye to David Letterman.  Don't worry, he hasn't died, but, in some ways, this isn't too different.  He's announced he'll be retiring in 2015. When he leaves his show, I doubt we'll be hearing much from him again. Johnny Carson said he was only leaving his show, not TV, but that was pretty much the last anyone saw of him.

This isn't exactly a shock.  Dave is 66 and has been doing late night TV since 1982.  A whole new generation of late night talent, inspired by him, has taken over.  Time to step aside. 

He stands with other great names in late night--Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson--as a great innovator.  We're so used to him it can be hard to remember how radical he seemed when he first appeared on NBC following Carson, in a slot he held for eleven years.  Back then, Johnny was the king but Dave appealed to a new generation.  If nothing else, he brought rock and roll to late night, at a time when Johnny was single-handedly keeping the big band sound alive. (I attended an early episode when it wasn't that hard to get tickets, but that's a story for another day.)

Dave was famous for his remotes, going outside to find comedy.  Whether he was visiting strange stores with strange salespeople, or just crushing everyday items with an hydraulic press, New York (and Jersey, too) was his theatre.  Not that he invented this--Dave would tell you Steve Allen did it first--but he brought a certain attitude.

He was also famous for doing stunts--getting into a suit of Velcro and launching himself onto a sticky wall, or wearing a suit of cereal and being lowered into a giant bowl of milk.  And he created a cast of characters his audience loved.  Bandleader/hepcat Paul Shaffer, of course, but also regulars like out-of-it Larry "Bud" Melman, bitter writer Chris Elliott, weird announcer Bill Wendell and certain early guests (when Dave wasn't always getting the big names) like Pee-wee Herman, Howard Stern, Harvey Pekar, eccentric comedian Brother Theodore and Kamarr, the Discount Magician.

Above all, he brought irony to late night, mixed with a sense of the absurd.  He'd spotlight real life and note how odd it was.  This was a central part of almost every bit he did, from street interviews to small town news to top ten lists (started as a joke but becoming his biggest bit) to stupid pet tricks to viewer mail.

He was also at his best when his guests were at their oddest.  Oliver Reed and Sam Phillips were drunk.  Nastassja Kinski seemed high.  Cher call him an asshole.  Crispin Glover almost kicked in his head.

 Dave, a comedian himself, also had on many fellow comedians, such as Jay Leno, whose flagging career was virtually saved by Dave.

Ah yes, Leno.  Dave always figured he was next in line, ready to take over the Tonight Show, NBC's most valuable real estate, when Carson left.  But NBC had a dilemma.  Jay was doing a great job as permanent guest host, while Dave was doing fine an hour later, so why break that up?  Leno got the gig and Dave went to his perch on CBS in 1992.  For a couple years he was beating Leno, and it looked like NBC screwed up, but Jay was a workhorse who did whatever he had to do (including booking hotter guests and changing his imitation of Carson to an imitation of Letterman, just less edgy) to get on top.  While Dave made a lot of money for his network, and while he was still an innovator, he essentially lost the battle with Leno. I'm guessing it galled him, but who knows?

In any case, his early years on the Late Show With David Letterman were some of his best.  A few fans accused him of sanding off his edges, but he wasn't at his rinky-dink NBC show anymore, he was trying for something more grand. And early bits, like driving with Zsa Zsa, taking over at Taco Bell, and "The Strong Guy, The Fat Guy, The Genius" showed he was just as good as ever.

He also created stars of his new neighbors at the Ed Sullivan Theatre, such as Mujibur and Sirajul, and Rupert Jee.

And then, almost a decade into his new show, came 9/11, when Dave, broadcasting from New York, seemed to be the guy the country was looking to.

But I'm not sure if he and his audience we were ever that close again.  I know as big a fan as I was, his last decade or so hasn't been the same.  Some of it is just getting older and losing a step. He stopped doing remotes (some say he'd hurt his neck and didn't want as much physical activity). In 2000, he had heart surgery, and that would slow anyone down.  In 2003 he had a son, which no doubt took up a lot of his time, and also made him less cynical--perhaps good for Dave the person, but not necessarily for Dave the comedian.  And also, for the last decade, he become more partisan--as opposed to funny--with his politics.

Ever since he moved to CBS, the list of late night talk shows has been growing. Today, there are so many it's hard to keep track, but Dave has always been an anchor you knew you could count on--if just to hear his Top Ten list (one of the few pieces of intellectual property he was able to take from his NBC days).

So we say farewell.  It's the end of an era.  I don't see anyone becoming the icon that Dave was.  But then, that's what people said about Carson.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though he's tired and cranky, he's still the best late night host. Yes I've been Hyp-Mo-Tized.

5:42 AM, April 04, 2014  

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